Fair Trade Vanilla at Work in Uganda

Two hundred miles west of Uganda’s capital, Kampala, lies Fort Portal. Surrounded by crater lakes, dramatic mountains, and large forests, Fort Portal’s people rely on subsistence agriculture and raising livestock. Jobs are scarce in this town of 46,000. Fair trade, however, promises to provide more opportunity in this lush region.

Lulu Sturdy is a third generation farmer who has become an important liaison for Ugandan farmers and foreign companies like Ben & Jerry’s. Sturdy’s grandfather, Trevor Price, arrived in Fort Portal in the 1920s after traveling down the Nile River from Cairo. Price started growing tea in the area, which was perfect for such cultivation because of volcanic soil, sunshine, rainfall, and the right altitude. As Price purchased more land for tea, he also built roads, schools, a health clinic, all while planting rare African hardwood trees. Fifty years ago Price purchased Ndali, where he built a lodge and had planned to grow tea.

In the 1970s Idi Amin expelled European and Asian foreigners from Uganda. Price was allowed to stay, but his land was confiscated, and tea cultivation in the region declined.

In 1991 a new government invited dispossessed foreign landowners back to Uganda. Price’s son, Mark, began rebuilding Ndali Lodge, with help from his children and his niece, Lulu Sturdy. Sturdy, who joined us at Ben & Jerry’s headquarters via Skype, explained how fair trade has made a huge difference for the farmers to which she has been devoted for over 15 years.

When the Price and Sturdy families reclaimed their family’s land back in 1991, they realized that had to figure out a way to keep everyone employed. Crops like yams and maize just did not cut it, so they tried devoting an acre of the land to vanilla. Vanilla vines grow slowly, however; but Lulu Sturdy figured out a way how to increase wealth throughout the Fort Portal region: vanilla processing.

Sturdy collaborated with local farmers in working on a plan to market their vanilla. As was the case with many farmers throughout the developing world, farmers on their own were often exploited by middlemen who would pay only marginal prices for their crops. But together, the farmers had more bargaining power. What first started as a cooperative of 50 farmers grew to 600 farmers and then 1200 farmers. Since Sturdy had always ensured that farmers on her property were paid a fair wage with benefits, “fair trade” was seen at first as a marketing tool. But this would not be a gimmick for long.

The coop received their first big order from Ben & Jerry’s, which had already been committed to fair trade before those two words were even used together. What was first an order for 5 tons of vanilla extract grew to 25 tons. The relationship with Ben & Jerry’s sparked an expansion of the vanilla processing facility—what was once a 600 square foot center grew to 8000 square feet.

Sturdy’s farm alone employs 100 people, up from 25 from when she first started managing the property. The effects of fair trade vanilla has rippled through Fort Portal. Farmers can now send their children to school, and can provide each other additional opportunities. Since 2005 local growers have participated in a community loan program that allows them to purchase more equipment, or even start adjacent businesses such as taxi and delivery services. The attitude of “well this is the way it is” has disappeared—farmers in this region are now optimistic and energized with the changes that have occurred around Fort Portal. As the vanilla farmer and coop leader Mbusa Joseph explained to us:

Fair trade is the best way for money to reach farmers directly instead of charity. Charity passes through so many hands before it reaches the people who need the help. But through fair trade, the money goes directly into the farmers’ hands and has the greatest possible impact.

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010. He has lived across the U.S., as well as in South Korea, Abu Dhabi and Uruguay. Some of Leon's work can also be found in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. You can follow him on Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost).